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While our driving theme was the conceptualization and cooking of ingredients, each chef took a completely different approach at this year’s Congress – what tied them all together: a sense of culinary optimism and a highly personal point of view.

Keynote speaker David Kamp looked back to the history of a few of the chefs and food professionals that shaped the national consciousness in recent years and connected their cuisine or writing to their cultural surroundings. Character in point: Alice Waters, who’d been so involved in San Francisco’s counterculture, then created a restaurant and a philosophy that reflected it. He discussed how food critiquing, once considered fluff, used to be dominated by women but has since been embraced by men – one of the many indicators that chefs are being taken seriously. “Figuratively, the chef is Rochester’s mad wife from Jane Eyre, finally being let out of the attic,” Kamp closed. “There has never been a better time to be a chef.”

Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin in Tokyo presented playful dishes and tools with high wow-factor – notably the “Magiqual” refrigerator that keeps liquids liquid at below-freezing temperatures. The liquid turns into a solid when agitated or poured – at Ruygin this means verbena and mint iced tea is poured into a cocktail glass, instantly turning into a slushy on contact, and topped with liquid nitrogen clouds of sugared cream.

In the midst of Monday’s programming, New York chef Daniel Boulud was presented the 2007 New York Rising Stars Mentor Award, an award voted on by the NY Rising Star chefs, honoring the mentor chef who does the most to support young chefs in his local industry, and help them succeed. As he accepted his award and bantered on stage with David Bouley, Boulud spoke to America’s exponential culinary growth over the last 20-30 years, saying “I never would have thought that America would have been as good, if not better, than Europe…”

Brown butter banana and peanut butter pebbles were then passed around by Wylie Dufresne of WD~50 in New York, who presented his process for pizza pebbles – a simple, logical procedure with interesting textural results – plus his recent experiments in streamlining the puff snack process (with funnions, specifically), and his knotted foie. “I don’t think tying [foie] in a knot is something Escoffier would have done,” said Dufresne, “it’s cool that I can tie it in a knot, but if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter.”

On Tuesday, Spanish chef's presentations were driven by nature and inspired by the chefs' native landscapes. Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain created edible “rocks” from potatoes, and “vanity” in the form of large, shiny, hollow chocolate bubbles, stabilized with xantham gum and made with a fish tank bubbler. He explained his philosophy of creating food that speaks to the emotions and the palate. In his presentation of dishes inspired by Andalusian landscapes, Dani Garica of Calima showed the audience a photo of the land – piles of smooth rocks in silhouette looking like ancient tombs – then built and painted a dish that mimicked Andalusia’s rocky landscape with frozen coins of chocolate and orange mousse. When an attendee asked why he was referencing landscape, Garcia asked “Have you seen ‘Ratatouille’? There’s a moment when the miserable critic takes a bite of food and it’s like time travel. He goes back to his mother’s house when he was a happy child – it’s a [food] doorway.”

Dan Barber showed stunning images of the pastures and animals (including whole, skinned, butchered ones) from the Stone Barns Center in upstate New York and explained, using a holistic approach, how such a system can function successfully – from the farm to the table. He described the process of growing heirloom and near-extinct vegetables, like pura cassava, an ancestor of broccoli, and explained the scientific method that shapes the flavor, texture, and marbling of what ends up on his plates.

Joël Robuchon demonstrated how 20 years of sous vide cooking research has led to a wealth of cooking temperature knowledge. Even the simplest thing, cooking an egg for an example, has a precise method to be followed: one needle takes the temperature of the yolk, the other needle, the white. “I used to think that the best cooks in the world were Japanese,” Robuchon said, looking affectionately to New York Rising Star and protégé Yosuke Suga, “but I am beginning to think they are American.” While Robuchon (respectfully) rejected additives, except for agar agar, which is alright because it comes from seaweed, he seemed keen on what the avant garde chefs are working towards: precision and understanding.

Shannon Bennett of Vue de monde in Australia used a Cona to make a Bouillabaisse consommé – in 5 minutes. Spanish pastry chef Oriol Balaguer created a Concept Cake, re-imagining the components of a classic apple tart into different elements (grating raw pastry dough for added textures and compressing caramelized compote for the filling) and then constructed it into a familiar, but modern and clean version.

From Brazil, Alex Atala of D.O.M, gave the international audience a look at South American cuisine, a young and just-starting culinary scene. He put Levi Strauss’s theory of the raw and the cooked in a modern culinary context, adding toasted, fire, fermentation and more to create a scale of flavors and culinary experiences. He gave the audience a taste of Tucupi, a broth made from a poisonous variety of yucca, grown only by Amazonian Indians, who’s flavor is to the Amazon “what tomato, basil and mozzarella is to Italy; what soy sauce and ginger is to Japan.” Elena Arzak of Restaurant Arzak in Spain made her version of a traditional Basque squid dish, adding a sauce made with compost to further evoke the sense of terroir. One of the newer techniques from Restaurant Arzak: seasoning an ingredient with freeze-dried and ground powder made from that same ingredient.

Back-to-back workshops in mixology, wine-tasting, savory, and pastry made for an entire day or interactive education. Zak Pelaccio of Fatty Crab led five tables of eager chefs in the making of his signature Chili Crab dish, discussing classic Malay cooking – specifically street food. “Everyone killed the fish,” his sous chef said, as in, they really listened and cooked it properly. French chefs and scientists Bruno Bertin and Bruno Goussault of Cuisine Solutions, explained the process of using the Cvap oven and thermo circulators safely and efficiently – stressing the importance of using high quality sealing vacuum bags. Stephan Pyles and his pastry chef Katherine Clapner led a morning workshop on the use of chilies in Southwestern cuisine. Pyles explained the method of layering flavors and then made Bronzini Ceviche with Vanilla-Roasted Fennel and Almond Gazpacho with his class.

Sunday’s From Kitchen to Cookbook seminar brought together two major cookbook publishers, a literary agent, a writer and a chef to discuss something that many want, but few know how to get – a cookbook. Agent Lisa Queen and publishers Ann Bramson and Will Schwalbe of Artisan and Hyperion discussed the oversaturated market, the economics of publishing, and their desire for something that breaks the mold. Grant Achatz discussed his current cookbook project, a self-designed, self-published venture that will have an online component, and writer Jeffrey Steingarten described a few books that he feels are the best of their kind.

There’s so much more to say about the hands-on workshops, the lunches, the panels and the exciting names in New York pastry – Pichet Ong, Johnny Iuzzini and Alex Stupak – that graced Sunday’s pastry stage. But we’re still recovering, writing thank you’s, and unpacking, so there’s much more to come soon…